Brussels - The European Union has successfully weathered the storms of economic troubles and populist political forces, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Wednesday, urging the bloc to use the momentum to become stronger and more united.
Juncker outlined his vision for the future of the EU at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, in his annual state of the union address, calling on lawmakers to cooperate to deliver results on a number of proposals by the commission.
"The wind is back in Europe's sails," Juncker said. "We now have a window of opportunity but it will not stay open forever. Let us make the most of the momentum, catch the wind in our sails."
Exploitation of opportunities
It was one of Juncker's last opportunities to push EU reforms in his role as commission president since he is expected to step down in 2019.
The speech touched on a number of hot-button issues including the economy, migration, security and Brexit.
On trade and the economy, Juncker said he is to propose a new framework that would allow for the screening of foreign investments.
While he did not explicitly mention China, several EU member states - including Germany, France and Italy - had called on the commission to act over shared concerns that Chinese investment in Europe dwarfs flow the other way.
"Let me say once and for all: We are not naive free traders," Juncker said. "Europe must always defend its strategic interests."
"If a foreign, state-owned, company wants to purchase a European harbour, part of our energy infrastructure or a defence technology firm, this should only happen in transparency, with scrutiny and debate," he said.
Open the doors of free trade
"It is a political responsibility to know what is going on in our own backyard so that we can protect our collective security if needed."
Mentioning successful free trade deals recently concluded with Japan and Canada, Juncker urged the EU to begin trade talks with Australia and New Zealand. He added that ongoing talks with Mexico and South American countries could be concluded by the end of 2017.
The commission president also called on member states to look into measures aimed at strengthening the single market.
"We need a European monetary fund," he said while also calling for a European minister of economy and finance.
Similar calls have been made by French President Emmanuel Macron.
expansion of the Schengen zone
Juncker said that the new role could be established within the commission, also chair the Eurogroup and be accountable to the EU parliament.
He called for an expansion of the eurozone to all EU member states. Currently only 19 of 28 member states are part of the eurozone.
"If we want the euro to unite rather than divide our continent, then it should be more than the currency of a select group of countries," Juncker said.
And he proposed an expansion of the Schengen zone, which is an area of free movement between country borders.
Of the 26-member Schengen area, 22 are EU member states. EU member countries Ireland, Britain as well as Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia and Cyprus are not part of Schengen.
Legal migration routes to the EU
On migration, Juncker said that creating more pathways for legal migration into EU countries was an "absolute necessity."
"Irregular migration will only stop when the migrants have got another option than undertaking a perilous journey," Juncker said.
He noted that the EU has made good progress on protecting its external borders and slowing down the flow of migrants, calling on solidarity among member states to manage refugees already on the continent.
"Europe, contrary to what some say, is not a fortress and must never become one," Juncker said. "Europe is and must remain the continent of solidarity where those fleeing persecution can find refuge."
Noting the need for better protections in the digital arena, Juncker proposed the creation of a pan-European cybersecurity agency to protect against digital threats, which amounted to 4,000 cyberattacks per day in Europe in 2016 alone.
"Cyberattacks can be more dangerous to the stability of democracies and economies than guns and tanks," he warned.
Touching on Britain's exit from the bloc, which is expected to be finalized on March 29, 2019, Juncker said it was going to be "a very sad and tragic moment."
To make sure that European citizens understand where the bloc would be headed after Brexit, Juncker called for convening a special summit on March 30, 2019, - the day after Britain's exit.
"My hope is that on 30 March 2019, Europeans will wake up to a union where we all stand by our values," he said.